September 24, 2014
We pulled up to Ben Shewry’s Attica, a mere 10 minutes behind schedule tucked in the lovely suburb of Glen Eira. Listed at #21 in the 2013 top 50 restaurants of the world, we expected genius. A handful of tables were scattered across 2 small rooms with a capacity to seat no more than 30 to 40 people at once. The kitchen sat in the back with a busy team not entirely out of sight; visible enough for us to get a feel of the bustle. The lighting and ambiance was set to place the food as king. We were lucky to have our friends, residents of Melbourne, dine with us that evening and share in a spectacular experience.
One glimpse at the menu and the decision was unanimous; as our waitress sprung back to take our order, we spurted out almost in unison- “The 8 course degustation menu with wine pairing please”. Our friends’ lovely wife was in her first trimester, so she opted for a juice pairing instead and I can vouch that it was by no means a setback.
As our waitress walked away, freshly baked bread made its way to our table along with a small shallow circular dish of creamy churned butter and whipped macadamia oil, garnished with chopped dried sage. There was no need of a butter knife, just a simple tear, dip and enjoy formula.
As we wiped off the final remnants of our butter, a cavalry or 3 waiters approached our table with our first Amuse-bouche; one held a crate of honeycomb, another held deep blue bowls with a spoon of thick fromage blanc nestled in the middle, and the third gracefully explained the dish while placing a chunk of the honeycomb and drizzling some of the sweet nectar over it. It was my first time to actually bite into honeycomb and it was soft and tore off with ease. The gentle fibers in it complimented the smooth creamy fromage blanc perfectly, with the sweetness cutting into the fat.
As we continued in our banter, sharing stories from across continents, our second Amuse Bouche was served on a tray lined with a white napkin. Bite sized Pikelets of Wallaby black pudding, buoyed a dollop of foam, a layer of jam and decorated with petite pink flowers no bigger that the size of my thumbnail. I have never had Wallaby let alone Wallaby blood! The pikelets themselves were light and airy but a little dry for my taste; despite the fact, I believed that it worked well with the sweet jam and light foam.
We glanced at our menu in anticipation and first up was the Snow Crab and Sour Leaves; but no! That was not what approached our table. We were in a restaurant rated #21 in the world in 2013 and #32 this year; Of Course there was still more to go with amusing our palette. While we were being served our third Amuse Bouche, we were informed that, we were yet another Amuse Bouche away from actually commencing our degustation menu. At this point I started to ration tummy space and began counting bites. We were served some fermented cottage cheese with house cultured crème fraiche, alpine pepper and topped with cauliflower oil which was brought out with a delicate bramble basket filled with mushroom plant leaves. Yes, mushroom leaves; yet another first! They didn’t look like mushrooms of course, but the thin leafy stalks definitely possessed a mushroom taste. They are said to have originated from Papua New Guinea and have 3% more protein than regular mushrooms. We were instructed to dip the leaves and coat it with the creamy cheesy mixture before biting into the fibrous stems. Absolutely unique! We haven’t even commenced our degustation and I was being bombarded with one surprise after another.
The last and final Amuse Bouche finally sat in front of me. A work of art with the face of Lance Wiffen (owner of Sea Bounty at Portarlington, Australia’s mussel capital) carefully painted on a mussel shell and 4 pieces of delicate mussels placed on dried sea saltbush. The Port Phillip blue lip mussels were battered in potato rice starch and flash fried for under a mere 35 seconds in pig fat. You could taste the sea as your teeth sank into the crispy crust and pierced the soft mussels in between.
The 4 appetizers had accomplished their mission. My interest was piqued and I was amused by the Australian accents that flavored each dish. From the Wallaby black pudding pikelets, to the mushroom leaves, to the blue lip mussels, the food spoke of the culture and the region that it was cultivated in.
A few minutes later and after a generous pour of our first wine; we were finally served our Snow Crab, delicately blanketed beneath tangy sorrel leaves. The juicy shreds of the snow crab were lightly laced with mandarin gel and perfectly balanced your taste buds with the delicate green sorrel leaves. A few bites into it and I was starting to fill up, and we haven’t even scraped the tip of the ice berg yet.
Following the crab was the ‘Ten Flavours of St Josephs Wort’; St Josephs Wort being synonymous for Basil (make sure not to mix this with St Johns Wort in conversations as I did). As simple as it sounds, this was one of the favorites of the evening. Ten types of basil leaves weaved around some deep-red poached and skinned Russian tomatoes that sat over a dollop of Merediths Yoghurt made from sheep milk and dotted with beetroot puree and beetroot oil. Every bite into this dish put you in a 2 second trance of euphoria. At this point I have given up rationing space in my tummy and lapped up every last smudge in my plate.
The Marron and Ground Greens was dished out next with half a tail of marron leaning over a mound of shredded greens and a creamy pork fat and onion sauce drizzled over. The shredded greens comprised of fine threads of Kale, Tarragon and Chicken marinated in coriander root; it isn’t a taste nor texture you would expect but yet another perfect marriage of flavours.
After a little bit of a break we moved on into our next course- Cucumbers, Holy Flax, Sauce of Burnet. My fiancé is not one for cucumbers and this being a complete vegetarian dish, his skepticism before it arrived was obvious. In our plate sat segmented inch tall towers of cucumbers that had been marinated in chardonnay verjus and cooked in charred cucumber oil and burnet sauce, accompanied with jewels of peas, shavings of garlic and garnished with Holy Flax. This beautifully presented, flavor packed, powerful dish turned out to be the star of the evening in our opinion; such a lovely pairing of Holy flax and the soft tender cucumbers coated in the burnet sauce. My fiancé has since given cucumbers a second chance.
The King George Whiting in Paperback was up next; another example of bringing in culture into food. It is the Aboriginals that first used the technique of cooking food in Paperbark over charcoal. Ben Shewry cleverly incorporated this technique to cook the delicate fillet of the whiting topped with finely chopped pearl oysters to bring about a lovely smoky and earthy flavor to the supple whiting.
To sum our savory dishes for the evening, out came the much anticipated and another favorite of the night: The Red Kangaroo with herbs. He wasn’t lying when he said ‘Red Kangaroo’; the meat was as red as a beetroot, cooked to perfection with an extremely thin sear on the outside accompanied with hot and sour Quandongs and drizzled with a cranberry vinaigrette. The combination of flavors was immaculate and the extremely tender meat exploded with a flood of flavors in your mouth.
The first of our two desserts was the Blueberries with Vinegar and Fresh Cheese ice cream, which was gently buried under chrysanthemum petals. The small pool of apple vinegar contrasted and complimented the cheese ice cream perfectly cutting its heaviness down to match the blueberries.
To finish off our evening came the last and final Raw Strawberry Jam layered over soured cream. I personally thought that the whole dish leant towards the tangier side, as there was no accompaniment to smooth out the tart. (Unfortunately didn’t take a picture of it)
Ben Shewry has not just crafted exceptional dishes in his menu but he has represented his country and the region through local ingredients and his techniques. The care and thought behind every dish was incredible; the ability to marry local ordinary everyday flavors and transform them into magical monuments on your plate is more than a skill, it’s an art.